The Useless Nature of Beauty

Oscar Wilde once said, “Beauty is useless.” This may seem troubling at first. But disagreement reveals more about cultural values and philosophical understandings than it does Wilde’s philosophy.

One immediate response is that Beauty, on the contrary, affects us, and thus has a use. But the propensity to affect is a common occurrence that does not necessarily derive from utility. This argument equates “utility” and “usefulness.” On the contrary, “utility” is that which has the nature of a tool; something made to act as a utility; a means; something to produce or move towards an end. But just because something is useful does not mean that it is a utility, or, that is to say, was made for utility. Usefulness can be true of anything. And again, having an affect does not mean being useful. Only if “use” here is meant to explain the phenomenon of cause and effect is a thing useful, while lacking the accidental Nature of utility.

The trending Minimalist movement is directed by just this question of utility by asking, “do I need this?” The common idea that “need” here refers to basic physical needs–food, water, and shelter. While consumerism is prevalent and therefore reflecting on this question is amiable, the underlying philosophy is prone to utilitarianism. That being that the utility of an object determines the value of it, and, in the case of the Minimalist, the necessity of it.

Now, concluding that someone who refuses to purchase an item of Beauty therefore does not value Beauty, is a faulty argument. Monetary transactions are not necessary to prove one’s value of a thing. In fact, sometimes the complete refusal to place a monetary value or transaction, is a sure way to prove one’s positive value of something. Reducing the human person to a price-tag is a prominent example. Nonetheless, there is still goodness to possessing and investing in things for Beauty’s sake.

The Minimalist lifestyle, then, that only sustains their physical “needs” are denying themselves of their non-physical desire for Beauty. This philosophy denies the Goodness of that which is simply Beautiful by nature of what it is, what it reminds of us, instead of what it does. By nature of being human, it is good to have things that not only meet our physical needs, but also remind us of our spiritual state. Thus, since humans both desire and even refract Beauty, abstaining from Beauty is an abuse.

Again, investing in things of Beauty is not necessary to prove one’s value of it or to experience it. One can simply step outside and watch a sunset or gaze upon a flower to experience Beauty. The two points that I think can be taken from Wilde are 1) Beauty is useless but still valuable, and 2) things of Beauty are good to possess, so to speak, seeing how the possession of Beauty is a rather paradoxical idea.

If Wilde is right, and I believe he is, then we should value things of Beauty for what they are, not for what they do. We should value the things that are Beautiful qua Beauty–a  “wilde” idea, I know.

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